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Spagnola: Jason Stood Tall During Crazy Ride


FRISCO, Texas – This is the Jason Garrett I knew, maybe you wished you knew, too.

For eight years with the Cowboys as a player. For three and a half years with the Cowboys as an offensive coordinator. For a half-season with the Cowboys as the interim head coach. For the last nine seasons with the Cowboys as the head coach.

That's 21 years, been there for them all.

Probably was after 8 p.m. Sunday night, Dec. 29, in the bowels of AT&T Stadium. The Cowboys had just beaten the Redskins, 47-16, though finding out the Eagles had beaten the Giants to clinch the NFC East title. The Cowboys would finish second, one game back at 8-8.

Jason had spent an abnormally long time in his Cowboys locker room office. Door was shut after conducting his postgame briefing in the interview room, a good hour earlier. He probably was hopeful he would get a stay as the Cowboys head coach for at least another season.

But Garrett is smart. He's perceptive. Deep down, he probably knew his run as the Cowboys' eighth head coach over the franchise's 60-season history would be coming to an end. That's what happens when 8-8 doesn't get you into the playoffs, especially when so much is expected in 2019 and you're in the final year of a five-year contract.

We were standing just outside the Cowboys locker room door, me waiting to tape a short TV segment as soon as Brad Sham and Babe Laufenberg finished their final segment of the postgame show.

My back was turned when getting this tap on the shoulder. It was Jason walking out. Nothing much was said. I mean, what do you say? He smiled and we shook hands. He proceeded to shake hands with Brad, who he had known for, oh, those same many years. He shook hands with Babe, a dear friend, with Babe Sunday night pointing out dearer than most would even know. He recounted how, during the week his son Luke lost his battle with cancer, Jason, late after preparing his team midweek, stopped by the hospital three straight nights to visit Luke.

There was some small talk before Jason made the long walk to his car. Could only imagine what was going through his mind. Was this it? Last time to make this walk? Look, Garrett would never let on he knew what the public perception was out there. He would never let on he knew what members of the media he routinely met with five times a week were writing; what was being said.

And when asked after what's turned out to be his last game if he still wanted to be the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, Garrett somewhat defiantly but without much conviction said, "I want to be the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. We will see what happens."

Do you think you will be the head coach of the Cowboys?

"I have no idea," he said.

My guess is Jason knew. He'd been in the game too long, 28 years total as a player and coach, to not know the score. But he would never allow anything personal to overshadow his team concept. That is why on the video message boards throughout The Star and in the locker room, one of the messages was The Team, The Team, The Team.

Exactly why he told his guys in the locker room the story of his former high school coach Cliff Foust, and in short, the real meaning of "standing tall," that standing tall in the pocket when learning to play quarterback at a young age would have a hidden meaning of "standing tall" through the success in life, standing tall through the adversities in life."

This had been a tough year for Jason to continue standing tall. There was the death of former teammate and longtime Cowboys assistant coach Wade Wilson on Feb. 1. There was a death of a nephew few ever knew about. Then the death of Luke, learning of this moments before stepping to the podium on Aug. 22 for his daily media address. He said little, of anything to his team, doing his best to remain consistent, focusing on that day's practice.

Now this, a pressure-packed season, loaded with weird circumstances. That opening three-game winning streak followed by a three-game losing streak, laced with those two peculiar fumbles in a 12-10 loss at New Orleans; the three interceptions, one basically a dropped potential touchdown pass, one just a bad read and the third that should have been defensive pass interference, in the 34-24 loss to Green Bay, also including missed 54- and 33-yard field goals; and a bold fourth-and-1 gamble from the Jets' 7-yard line that failed, then of all things the Jets scoring on the next play, a 92-yard touchdown pass.

There would be the four-point loss to Minnesota, the four-point loss in the rain storm to New England when the Cowboys were told the next day by NFL officials that those two tripping calls and a holding call were wrong, though Garrett saying on Monday when asked about that, "I have no comment."

Just crazy, like losing basically winner-wins-the-East 17-9 to the Eagles when the offense leading the NFL in total yards could not even manage a touchdown.

I can remember over the years when a strange occurrence would crop up, maybe the next day when talking about it, saying to him sarcastically, "So you wanted to be a head coach, did you?"

But very few head coaches leave on their own terms. Tom Landry didn't. Jimmy Johnson sort of didn't. Barry Switzer and Chan Gailey and Dave Campo definitely didn't. Bill Parcells did, walking away. Wade Phillips didn't even finish the 2010 season.

Now Jason. No matter finishing with the second-most wins in franchise history, an 85-67 record, including taking a 1-7 team after eight games in 2010 to a 5-3 finish as the interim head coach. But just 2-3 in the playoffs, having won three NFC East titles in the previous five seasons heading into 2019.

Another strange thing: In eight of his nine full seasons as head coach, the Cowboys either went to the playoffs those three times or into at least Game 15 in five other seasons needing just one more victory to win the East. They lost four of those in head-to-head matchups with the eventual division champ.

That close.

So now the Cowboys move on, though the team has not confirmed the next head coach, despite multiple reports having the Cowboys agreeing to terms with former Packers' 13-year head coach Mike McCarthy. We should learn something no later than maybe Wednesday.

And now one last twist if indeed McCarthy, fired by the Packers with four games remaining in the 2018 season, becomes the ninth Cowboys head coach. And this thanks to our Talkin' Cowboys teammate Bill Jones:

From 2014 on, so the last six seasons, Jason Garrett has a 56-40 record in the regular season (2-3 playoffs). Then, over the last four and three-quarters seasons, McCarthy was 43-32-1 (4-3 playoffs) with Green Bay. Meaning Garrett had a 58.3 winning percentage and McCarthy a 56.6 winning percentage during that time period.

Oh, and the difference in the playoff records came down to the Packers beating the Cowboys 26-21 in the 2014 playoffs with Dez Bryant's catch-no-catch a huge determining factor, and then the Packers beating the Cowboys in the 2016 playoffs, 34-31, on quarterback Aaron Rodgers' 35-yard completion to tight end Jared Cook barely inbounds with three second remaining to the Cowboys' 33 to set up Mason Crosby's playoff-winning, walk-off 51-yard field goal.

Certainly a fine line.

One more oddity: It was McCarthy's Packers beating Phillips' Cowboys, 45-7, in 2010 that cost Wade his job, the Cowboys then promoting offensive coordinator Jason Garrett to interim head coach and eventually head coach after the season.

And there you have it. Four 8-8 seasons, though three of those while repairing a broken down, old roster. Four winning seasons, three of the four with a fourth-round drafted quarterback in 2016, including 13-3 Dak Prescott's rookie campaign. Only one losing season, veteran Tony Romo starting only four games in 2015, finishing just two that 4-12 season.

"We'll think about what's next at some point," Jason said after the final game of the season, "but again just want to soak in the day and devour the moment and the emotions of the day. And again, I'm so proud of our football team."

Yep, that's the Jason I know.